Best 15-Minutes Summary of Atomic Habits – My Life Changed After This

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Atomic Habits is my favorite book of all the books I read in 2022. It gave me techniques that I used to get into the habit of working out and reading.

This book teaches how tiny habits can lead to massive changes in our life. In this summary of atomic habits, we will go through the systems to improve our habits. I will also explain how I applied these strategies to build good habits and get rid of bad habits.

This is a very detailed summary of atomic habits and will be good for both the first-time reader and for someone who wants to take a quick refresher on the book.


1% Better Every Day

Most of us believe that to achieve big results we need to take massive actions. Massive actions are possible through tiny improvements that are not even visible to others at first.

Imagine you are flying from Los Angeles to New York City. If the pilot adjusts the heading just 3.5 degrees south, you will land in Washington, D.C., instead of New York. Such a small change is barely noticeable at takeoff but when magnified across the entire United States, you end up hundreds of miles apart.

A slight change in our daily habits can guide your life to a very different destination

– James Clear

The same goes for our habits. Let’s look at it mathematically.

  • If we become 1% better every day then it will compound to 37 times better in a year (1.01^365 = 37.78)
  • If we become 1% worse every day then it will bring us close to zero in a year (0.99^365 = 0.03)

Success is the product of daily habits and not once-in-a-lifetime transformations

– James Clear

What Progress is Really Like

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Habits often appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold and unlock a new level of performance. In the early and middle stages of any quest, there is often a Valley of Disappointment. You expect to make progress in a linear fashion and it’s frustrating to see how ineffective changes can seem during the first days, weeks, and even months.

This is one of the core reasons why it is so hard to build habits that last. People make a few small changes, fail to see a tangible result and decide to stop.

You may want to see those 6-packs after working out for a week but that’s not possible. Only with patience and perseverance you can survive this valley of disappointment and see exponential results in the future.

Forget about Goals, Focus on Systems Instead

A goal is a result you want to accomplish. A system deals with the process that leads you to those results.

Conventional wisdom suggests setting specific realistic goals. However, if you completely ignore the goal and focus only on the system then would you succeed? James Clear argues yes.

If we don’t have the right system then it will become a painful process to achieve our goals. Both marathon winners and losers focus on winning the goal but most likely the person who has the right system will eventually win the marathon.

Goals will change your life only momentarily. Once you achieve your goal then you may switch back to the same old routine. For example, most people lose weight for specific events and gain it back within a few months.

Goals are good for setting a direction but systems are best for making progress.

– James Clear

A System of Atomic Habits

If you are unable to change your old habits, it’s not because of you. It’s because of the systems that you have in place.

Atomic Habits are small routines or behaviors that accumulate to produce incremental positive outcomes over time. Just as atoms are the building blocks of molecules, atomic habits are the building blocks of remarkable results.

Three layers of behavior change

  1. Outcomes – the results that you get like losing weight or reading a book
  2. Processes – the actions that you take like a new workout routine or developing a daily reading habit
  3. Identity – what you believe or how you view yourself and others

Focus on Identity (the person you want to become) and not the outcome (goal). The focus should not be to learn an instrument but to change your identity to be a musician. The focus should not be on running a marathon but to be a runner. When you change your identity, then your behavior changes naturally.

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The Habit Loop

A habit is something that is repeated enough times and it becomes automatic. Habit is formed and reinforced by means of a continuous feedback loop:

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The key to creating a habit is to form feedback loops that continually improve.

Here’s an example to explain how the habit loop works.

  1. Cue – mind goes blank at work
  2. Craving – want to alleviate the frustration
  3. Response – check social media
  4. Reward – satisfy the need to feel less frustrated

Over time, rewards become associated with cues. So in this example, the reward of satisfaction from checking social media is tied to the cue of our mind going blank at work. And then checking Facebook may cue you to check Instagram which then becomes the cue to watch YouTube. Before you know it, the original cue of mind going blank at work resulted in 20 minutes of wasted time. The more you repeat these habit loops, the stronger they become.

A cue can be anything like a sound, smell, person, location, etc. Try to think of cues in your life that are initiating good or bad habit loops.

James Clear mentioned about 4 laws that can help you to automate these habits.

  1. Make it Obvious
  2. Make it Attractive
  3. Make it Easy
  4. Make it Satisfying

Law 1. Make it Obvious

Most of our current habits are so obvious that we don’t even realize that. You must first become aware of them before you change them.

a. Habit Scorecard

Write down all your behaviors on a habit scorecard including everything from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed. It may look something like this:

  • Wake up
  • Turn off alarm
  • Check phone
  • Go to bathroom
  • Brush teeth
  • Take a shower
  • Go to kitchen
  • Have breakfast
  • Watch news
  • and so on

Categorize each of these habits as positive, negative, or neutral. At this stage, we are not trying to change anything. We are just observing what is driving our daily life.

Most people fail to change their habits not because of a lack of motivation, but because of a lack of clarity. You need to set a time and a place to implement your strategy.

For the behaviors that you want to repeat, set a time and location for the act. Set your behavior using this phrase:

“I will {behavior} at {time} in {this location}

  • A bad example will be: I will read more this month.
  • A good example will be: I will read for 15 minutes daily at 5 pm in the study room.

b. Habit Stacking

Habit Stacking means connecting your desired habit with an existing habit. You can stack habits using this phrase:

“After {current habit}, I will {new habit}”

For example, after I brush my teeth, I will stretch for 5 minutes. After I make my coffee, I will meditate for 5 minutes.

You can even make it a chain of habits. For example, After I make my coffee, I will meditate for 5 minutes and then plan my day.

To build a chain of habits, you need to have cues that are automatic. Like waking up (automatic cue) followed by a good habit, then brushing your teeth (automatic cue) followed by another good habit.

c. Focus on the Environment, Not Motivation

Motivation is highly overrated. You can be motivated just by changing your environment.

It’s hard to stick with positive habits in a negative environment.

Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior

– James Clear

d. Design Your Environment for Success

Redesign your surroundings keeping the following things in mind.

Make it easy to see cues for the desired habits. For example, if you want to drink water after getting up then keep a water bottle next to your bed. If you want to practice guitar then keep it in your living room or somewhere where you will see it. You just need to make the cues visible to you.

With the same approach, you can avert negative habits by making them invisible. Like, keep your phone in a different room if you want to reduce your screen time.

Don’t see your environment just as a place filled with objects. Rather imagine a relationship with the objects in your environment. A couch can be related to watching Netflix and eating pizza or reading a self-help book. It will be difficult to work on the couch if it’s associated with Netflix or as a place to relax. So try to make separate zones in your house for different activities. The bedroom can be a sleeping zone, the dining table can be an eating zone, and the study table a reading zone.

One Space, One Use

– James Clear

e. Breaking a Bad Habit: Make it Invisible

Self-control can only help in the short term. To eliminate a bad habit, it’s important to make it invisible. Keeping junk food out of sight can help reduce the bad habit of eating junk food.

Law 2. Make it Attractive

We are more likely to take action when we are more likely to get rewarded and eventually it becomes a habit. Hence, to make a habit, we need to make it attractive.

a. The Dopamine-Driven Feedback Loop

Our motivation levels are affected by Dopamine. We are more motivated to act when our dopamine levels are high.

It was long believed that dopamine was only related to pleasure but now we know it is also associated with other neurological processes including motivation, learning and memory, punishment and aversion, and voluntary movement.

The hormone dopamine is released not only when we experience pleasure but also when we anticipate it.

Gambling addicts have a dopamine spike right before they place a bet, not after they win

– James Clear

Using social media, eating junk food, or taking drugs are all associated with a high level of dopamine and are highly habit-forming.

As a child, thinking about Christmas morning can be better than opening gifts. As an adult, daydreaming about an upcoming vacation can be more enjoyable than actually being on vacation.

The craving is what causes us to take action in the first place. So it is vital to make the action attractive.

b. How to Use Temptation Bundling

The temptation bundling technique makes a habit more attractive by combining the action that we need to do with the action that we want to do. You can combine the action of watching Netflix (the one you want to do) with working out (something you need to do).

Temptation bundling is based on a psychology theory known as Premack’s Principle which states that “more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors”. In other words, even if you are not looking forward to doing some exercise, you become conditioned to do it because you get to do something you really enjoy.

c. Group Influence

We are continually wondering what will others think of me and altering our behavior based on the answer

– James Clear

We imitate the habits of three groups in particular:

  1. The close – we pick up habits from the people around us
  2. The many – we constantly look to our group or tribe to guide our behavior
  3. The powerful – we try to replicate the behavior of successful people or people we admire

To build a good habit, it is best to join groups where the habit you desire is the norm. If you want to get into better shape, surround yourself with fit people. If you want to play chess, join a chess club.

d. Where Cravings come From

Cravings don’t come from necessity. You don’t usually say that I want to eat tacos because I need food to survive. Surface-level cravings are merely a manifestation of our deeper underlying motives. These underlying motives guide our behavior.

James Clear mentioned about following underlying motives in this book:

i. Conserve Energy

ii. Obtaining Food and Water

iii. Finding Love and Reproduce

iv. Connect and Bond with Others

v. Win Social Acceptance and Approval

vi. Reduce Uncertainty

vii. Achieve Status and Prestige

Our brains did not evolve with a desire to smoke cigarettes or check Instagram or play video games. Look at nearly any product that is habit-forming and you’ll see that it does not create a new motivation, but rather latches onto the underlying motives of human nature.

Your habits are modern day solutions to ancient desires. New versions of old vices. The underlying motives behind human behavior remain the same

– James Clear
  • Find love and reproduce = using Tinder
  • Connect and bond with others = browsing Facebook
  • Win social acceptance and approval = posting on Instagram
  • Reduce uncertainty = searching on Google

e. How to Reprogram your Brain to Enjoy Hard Habits

You can make hard habits more attractive if you can learn to associate them with a positive experience

– James Clear

By highlighting the benefits of a habit rather than focusing on its downside, you can quickly reprogram your mind to make the habit more appealing. For example, fitness equals health and well-being and not fatigue. Link saving money to future financial freedom and not sacrifice.

f. Breaking a Bad Habit: Make it Unattractive

To break a habit, do the same but highlight the benefits of not doing that habit, to make it as unattractive as possible.

Law 3. Make it Easy

a. How Long does it Actually Take to Form a New Habit?

An action can be repeated if it was easy in the earlier attempts.

During habit formation, a behavior becomes progressively more automatic through repetition. The brain also becomes more efficient while doing it repeatedly. A repetition is a powerful tool for forming habits.

You activate particular neuro circuits associated with habits every time you repeat them. So framing habit formation in terms of time is flawed, it should be framed in terms of the number of repetitions.

b. Reducing friction: The Law of Least Effort

The more energy is required to perform an action, the less likely it is to happen. It takes almost no energy to get into the habit of reading one page of a book every day.

The bigger the obstacle, the more friction is there between you and the desired outcome. If you need to travel 15 minutes out of your way to go to your gym, chances are you will not. If your gym is located on your commute to work, you will greatly decrease the friction. By making your good habits more convenient, you are more likely to stick to them.

Reduce friction associated with good habits and increase friction linked with bad habits.

c. Prime the Environment for Future Use

By automating or setting up your environment, you can reduce the friction for future action.

  • Want to exercise? Set out your workout clothes, gym bag, and water bottle ahead of time.
  • Want to improve your diet? Chop up a ton of fruits and vegetables on weekends and pack them in containers, so you have easy access to healthy, ready-to-eat options during the week.

d. The 2-minute Rule (Stop Procrastinating)

The 2-minute rule can help you establish small habits that will lead to bigger success.

Find a simple 2-minute version of your desired habit.

  • “Read before bed each night” becomes “Read one page.”
  • “Fold the laundry” becomes “Fold one shirt.”
  • “Study for class” becomes “Open my notes.”

The point here is not to do something but to master the habit of showing up. After you have established the habit with the 2-minute rule, you can improve it and progress to the next phase.

e. Breaking a Bad Habit: Make it Difficult

Think about the ways to create friction between your bad habits and yourself. Make it as impractical as possible. For example, if you want to watch less tv, unplug the tv after each use and put the remote in an inconvenient location.

Law 4. Make it Satisfying

a. The Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change

A feeling of pleasure is a message to the brain: “this feels good, let’s repeat this next time”. When you experience pleasure, your brain learns that behavior is worth remembering and repeating.

What is immediately rewarded is repeated; what is immediately punished is avoided

– James Clear

The first three laws increase the chances of doing the habit this time. The last law increases the chances of repeating the habit next time.

b. The Mismatch between Immediate and Delayed Rewards

A reward that is certain right now is typically worth more than one that is merely possible in the future.

With our bad habits, it is common to feel good about our immediate results but bad about the long-term outcomes. It is the opposite of good habits: the immediate result is unpleasant but the ultimate outcome is satisfying.

It is best to add a little immediate pleasure to the habits that will pay off in the long run and a little pain to those that won’t.

c. How to Turn Instant Gratification to Your Advantage

The vital rule in getting a habit to stick is to feel successful even if it’s in a small way. The feeling of success is a signal that your habit paid off and that the work was worth the effort.

It is satisfying to make progress and you can monitor your progress using visual measures such as hairpins, moving paper clips, or marbles. Eg. for every workout this month, move a marble from one jar to the complete jar. Visual measures can take multiple forms like diet journals, workout logs, or even page numbers in a book.

Don’t negate the positive impact with reward. Eating chocolate as a reward after a workout session is not the correct approach for short-term rewards.

d. Habit Tracking

Using a habit tracker can be the best method to monitor your progress. Habit tracking can help you determine whether you did a particular habit. Tracking becomes a reward in itself. Eg. crossing a task from your to-do list, making an entry in your exercise journal, or marking a dot on your habit tracker can be satisfying.

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e. How to Recover Quickly When Your Habits Break Down

In spite of your best efforts, it’s inevitable that life will interrupt you at some point. A bad day at work, a bad performance, or a bad workout can happen to anyone. When you’re having a bad day, you don’t realize how valuable it is to just show up.

Lost days hurt you more than successful days help you

– James Clear

It is very important to not break the chain of continuity. Every time you cross a day in your calendar for a given habit, you are creating a chain. Showing up is very important. Missing two days in the link is the start of a bad habit. Even if you usually do 30 push-ups, just do 5 on that given day, if that means not breaking the chain.

h. Breaking a Bad Habit: Make it Unsatisfying

  • Accountability Partners
    • A behavior is less likely to occur when pain is immediate.
    • Being held by a partner is a good way to keep your desired habits in check. We all want to be liked and respected, so we would rather just avoid punishment. For example, I would owe $20 to my friend every time I eat junk food, plus the respect I lose for failing to do what I said I would.
    • Behavior is more likely to be influenced by immediate and concrete consequences.
  • Habit Contracts
    • Create a habit contract to hold yourself accountable. It could be verbal or in writing, which makes it clear that you will honor a particular habit and there will be punishments if you do not.
    • You can then use your accountability partners to enforce the habit contract.

How I Used This Book to Build Habits

I wanted to build a good habit of working out. First I created a habit scorecard to see the habits I am already doing and where I can stack my new habit.

  1. Make it Obvious (Cues):
    • I said to myself: “I will work out at 7 am in the living room.”
    • I placed my dumbbells in the living room.
  2. Make it Attractive (Craving):
    • I started listening to my favorite audiobooks on Audible while working out.
    • I told myself: “I am building a stronger and healthier body.”
  3. Make it Easy (Response):
    • I started with the 2-minute rule of putting on workout clothes and stretching. This got me in the habit of showing up every day.
    • I reduced the friction by starting to work out at home rather than going to a gym which was a 15 minutes drive for me.
    • I primed my environment for use by keeping my shoes, yoga mat, and dumbbells in the living room the night before.
  4. Make it Satisfying (Reward)
    • I purchased this Habit Tracker and marking it became a reward. I made sure not to break the chain twice.
    • I joined a challenge with my fitness partner on My Fitness Pal
  5. I reminded myself every day that I am an athlete and focused on creating a system for working out rather than focusing on building 6-packs. I also kept in mind that I need to be patient and need to cross the Valley of Disappointment.

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